The longest, slowest U-turn in history

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the DA's rejection of race categorisation


In what is probably the most race-obsessed country on earth, the largest opposition party last weekend daringly decreed that race does not exist.

It is a “false assumption”, declared the Democratic Alliance — as Official Opposition, the apparent government-in-waiting — that one's race, based on physical appearance, “represents people who think, feel, or have the same experience”. Based on such “false beliefs in racial difference … a great deal of harm was caused and continues to be caused”.

The delegates to the DA's policy conference did concede, however, that racism and racialism exist and are “abhorrent and detestable”. Instead, the DA now commits itself to non-racialism, which it means the rejection of racial categorisation, especially in legislation.

Nevertheless, the DA concedes, South Africa’s past “is littered with myriad injustices”, the consequences of which remain and are “reflected … in general inequality of opportunity”. So redress remains essential and requires policies to tackle inequality of opportunity, “including interventions in education, healthcare and the economy…”.

To rectify these historical inequities, which have been aggravated by African National Congress government policies of affirmative action with its black empowerment and gender quotas, the DA will base its social and economic policies on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. These are oriented towards redress and are readily quantifiable, making progress or the lack thereof readily measurable.

This change of direction by the DA amounts to what must be one of the longest, slowest U-turns in political history. It takes a party that after1994 increasingly articulated policies that were, to some degree or another, based on the maxim that “race is proxy for disadvantage”, all the way back to its roots in the 1959 formation of the liberal Progressive Party.

But the reversal has more to do with pragmatism than ideology. It’s a desperate attempt by a party that has been tying itself in knots for years on what profile race classification will have in its policies, to unfold itself from its contortions. 

Those contortions — derided by many minority voters as the DA to pass itself off as “ANC-lite” and by many black voters as thinly disguised efforts to continue white privilege — cost it dearly in 2019. For the first time is six general elections, the party’s steady growth faltered, dropping 1.5 percentage points to 21% of the vote.

The party also shed black leaders with suicidal regularity. Almost all of them claimed upon departure that a key factor was the party’s ambiguities about the issue of race. 

Former DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, left to start Action SA because he said he couldn’t reconcile himself to “people who believe that race is not important in their discussion of inequalities”. Former DA national leader Mmusi Maimane left and founded One SA because he said the DA was unable to gain the trust of black voters because it continued to be seen as a party only for minorities. 

Maimane’s reaction to the most recent DA policy changes was to say that race couldn’t simply be imagined away. “Any view that seeks to deny that race exists will ultimately deny the lived experience of many because of their race.”

It’s interesting that none of those fretting about the DA’s embrace of non-racialism seems aware that it is, along with non-sexism, one of the principles enshrined in the South African Constitution. And, for that matter, a stated core policy of the ANC. Perhaps the concern is that the DA intends to actually take it seriously.

The media, too, has been virtually unanimously critical. The Financial Mail’s Carol Paton was scathing: “The removal of race-based redress will affirm suspicions that the DA is a party whose real agenda is to defend white privilege by denying that it exists … SA will not be made any better by a denial that race still matters in SA and that it will matter forever.”

Paton reflects a widely expressed view among commentators when she writes that DA credibility among black voters “who had been attracted to the DA because it looked like it might evolve into a cleaner, more efficient version of the ANC” have already had their hopes dashed by the departure of Maimane and the return of “strident” former leader Helen Zille as chair of its council. “The DA,” she concludes, “has taken a step back from aspiring to be a governing party.”

Unlike Paton, I don’t think such a “step back” is necessarily a bad thing. Those opposed to a disastrous ANC government that is driving the country into the ground need to face two things. 

The first is that the ANC is neither capable of internal reform nor deserving of DA emulation. The ANC's Zanufication will continue until those dismal Zimbabwean scenarios that were a dozen years ago thought impossible here, become our new reality half a dozen years hence.

The second is that no single political party has any hope in the foreseeable future of defeating the ANC in a national election. 

After almost three decades of democracy, the ANC vote, when combined with leftist black nationalist parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters, continues to hover around the constitutionally critical two-thirds majority mark. No matter how you slice and dice opposition groups to try to fashion a broadly non-racial, business-friendly coalition, it is unlikely to much exceed a third of the voters unless the ANC itself splits.

That doesn’t mean that the opposition’s prospects are entirely grim. It is telling that in 1994, when SA’s population was 40m, the ANC drew 12.2m votes on a 62% voter turnout. It’s never again come close to that high tide mark. 

In last year’s general election, with a population of almost 59m people and a 66% turnout, the ANC drew barely 10m votes. Given that we have 3m public servants who owe their sinecures to the ANC and 17m people dependent on social grants provided courtesy of the ANC, the governing party is managing to cash in only half of the vote that it’s paying for.

On last year’s StatsSA estimates, 39m people are above the age of 18 and theoretically eligible to register to vote. Let’s say 5m are foreigners who can’t vote, which means that the ANC is getting barely 3 out of 10 of the available votes.

So the DA’s problem — and it's a conundrum for all the parties that aspire to power — is that huge numbers of the enfranchised are not voting at all. But unless these people are suddenly galvanised to vote, changes to the DA’s theoretical position on what it might do if were voted into power, which everyone knows won’t happen, is unlikely to make much difference to outcomes at a national level.

It could, however, make a difference at a provincial and, especially, at a local level. There has historically been a much greater willingness to vote for opposition parties in municipal elections, which are scheduled for next year.

The DA also has a generally excellent track record in delivering efficient, corruption-free local administrations. In contrast, ANC administrations, as the Auditor-General’s annual reports show, have been almost universally incompetent and corrupt. 

So, the DA’s newly coined non-racialism will face off against ANC black empowerment, the EFF’s black racism, what Maimane says will be One SA's “multiracial” policies, and Action SA's still only vaguely explained ideas of “redress that promotes black entrepreneurship, not cronyism”. And on its right, it will have to claw back Afrikaner and coloured support that it lost to the Freedom Front Plus, which has always been unambiguously opposed to affirmative action.

DA policy chief Gwen Ngwenya, who piloted these bold changes, says that the party has shifted position on redress at least three times. She argues that there is “zero” evidence that the new policy of non-racial redress will not be supported by black voters.

The 2021 municipal elections will tell us whether she is right. It will be the first test of whether colour continues to trump competence. Whether race is, indeed, a “false assumption” or whether the DA is going to have to make yet another laborious U-turn.

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